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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2012

The Light of History

by Donald DeMarco

A statement in a secular newspaper caught my attention: “Religion is a plague that limits human progress.” This curt remark provoked me to think about the relationship between ignorance and prejudice. Is ignorance the sole basis for prejudice? The word prejudice implies a premature judgment, that is, a judgment without justifying knowledge. Nevertheless, it would seem that ignorance alone is not always the basis for prejudice. We encounter many people who, despite the fact that they know better, still harbor prejudicial attitudes.

The ignorant person who simply lacks knowledge would say, “I do not know,” when asked about matters concerning which he is ignorant. The prejudicial person, quite often, is not open to knowledge and holds on to his prejudicial views no matter how indefensible they are. There must be an additional factor, therefore, that leads to a persistent prejudice. It may be pride, fear, personal hostility, a commitment to an ideology, or something else. If ignorance were the sole basis for prejudice, this aberration would be easily eliminated by providing the appropriate knowledge. But prejudice is usually too complex a problem for education alone to solve. This disturbing fact poses a formidable challenge for teachers.

Nonetheless, when confronted with instances of prejudice, one may do the charitable thing and assume its basis is merely ignorance and nothing of a more sinister nature. This may be a pedagogical illusion, but at least it is a benign one.

The author of the provocative phrase above might have been enlightened by a comment that distinguished historian Chris- topher Dawson made in his appropriately titled book Progress and Religion: “ ... a large number, perhaps the majority, of the greatest scientists of modern times have been profoundly religious men, like Volta and Cauchy, Dalton and Faraday, Claude Bernard and Pasteur, Mendel and Wallace.”

Teachers are always looking for ingenious ways of delivering a truth to students before they can get their defenses up. It is something like getting a curve ball past a hitter when he is expecting a fastball. It occurred to me that my misguided provocateur probably penned her remark while aided by an electric light of some kind. Surely, those who contributed to the invention and development of this artificial form of producing light were on the side of progress. When Tom Henry wrote his book Electrical History (1996), he dedicated it to “the more than 15 million men and women who work in the electrical industry to keep lights burning every second, every minute, 24 hours a day, every day.” No one wants to go back to the “Dark Ages” before the harnessing of electricity and the invention of incandescent lighting.

But who were the great pioneers of electricity whose work led to the development of the electric lightbulb? It would be disconcerting to the author of that thought-provoking remark to know that many of them were actually Catholics. In fact, the important role Catholic scientists played in this enterprise prompted G.K. Chesterton to remark, many years ago in America magazine: “We should be perfectly justified in writing in large letters of THE CATHOLIC SCIENCE OF ELECTRICITY.”

Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Andre Ampere, and Charles Coulomb were all pioneers in electricity and were all Catholics. What’s more, their names are immortalized as units of scientific measurement. The galvanometer is an instrument for detecting and measuring electric current. A volt is a standard unit that signifies electrical pressure. An ampere refers to the flow of electrical current through a wire. A coulomb measures the quantity of electricity that flows through a wire in a given time.

It should not be surprising, then, that Albert Einstein, a man of impeccable scientific credentials, could say the following: “All religions, arts, and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.” Does my writer friend know, I mused, that she is taking on Einstein?

Nor should it be at all surprising that the Catholic faith would play an important role in the discovery, development, and harnessing of electricity. It is easy for Catholics, as well as all believers, to acknowledge the reality of things that are neither well understood nor clearly visible. “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly,” writes Martin Buber, “God is the electricity that surges between them.”

God’s life is grace. Grace is very real, though, like electricity, it is something that is difficult to depict. We could also say the same thing about the soul, as well as love. They are realities even though they elude clear description. There is no doubting the power of electricity to light a room; nor can there be any doubt concerning the love that shines from the faces of two lovers.

It is a very curious thing to rely on something in order to deny its existence. It is like typing a treatise that refutes the existence of the typewriter. The atheist uses his God-given brain, an organ whose complex and intricate circuitry could have been designed only by God, to deny God’s existence. Chesterton once remarked, “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.” But the converse is also true: If there are atheists, there must be a God.

It was not surprising that after learning that God said, “Let there be light,” certain religion-inspired scientists went to work so they could say, “Let there be lightbulbs.” One light turns on another. The Creative light prepares the way for the illuminating light — the light of education. Religion, light, and progress are synthetic. History demonstrates this fact.

Education, in Plato’s words, is the passage from darkness to light. Christian education is particularly enthusiastic about spreading light because it recognizes that the genesis of all light is in God. To claim that religion limits human progress involves a curious contradiction and a lollapalooza of historical inaccuracy. Let us return to Christopher Dawson, a Catholic scholar who knew a great deal about history. In his 1961 book The Crisis of Western Education, he wrote these words: “We may not be able to build cathedrals like the Catholics of the thirteenth century, or write epics like Dante, but we can all do something to make man conscious of the existence of religious truth and the relevance of Catholic thought, and to let the light into a dark world of a closed secularist culture.”

We must receive and share the light, electrical or otherwise, and not sin against it. We are well advised to remember what Blessed John Henry Newman said about light in the most endearing of all his poems, The Pillar of the Cloud (best known as the hymn, “Lead kindly light”):

Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The Night is dark, and I am far from home —
Lead Thou me on!

Light and prejudice are natural enemies. A lightbulb can dispel darkness from a room. Knowledge of the history of the lightbulb can banish, at least in this one instance, prejudice from the mind. Teachers should not be discouraged by the amount of prejudice in the world, but be heartened by the amount of light that is at their disposal.


Donald DeMarco, a prolific Catholic writer, is a senior fellow of HLI America, an Initiative of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.

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